Death by the Lake
On the following morning, when Mr. Gorringer had decided to “indulge in a solitary ramble through this beautiful countryside”, Carolus was surprised by the arrival in his house of Julie Nantwich.
“Raggety May died last night,” Julie said, “in the local hospital. Not long before the poor creature breathed her last she sent for me.”
Carolus waited to hear details, and Julie was eager to give them.
“Raggety May was a local character. She’d been round here for years. She was said to be a gypsy but that wasn’t true. She was an old mumper and crazy as a coot. What brought her to Millgrove Water I don’t know, but she seems to have strayed here in her wanderings and settled down. She kept alive by begging, some very bogus fortune-telling, and sometimes a little farm work. All the summer she slept in some kind of tent, a contraption of sacking and sticks, and in winter disappeared into a barn when she was allowed to do so by one of the local farmers. She was quite harmless. She had picked up the bit of fortune-telling somewhere along the road and it made people say it was lucky to help her.”
“Doesn’t sound as though she would fit in very well with the Welfare State.”
“No, but I think they left her alone. There were attempts to get into some sort of institution but she resisted them like a wild cat. She could act as though she was far madder than she was and that frightened her would-be benefactors. She was finally brought into the hospital by the police because they saw she was dying. I can’t honestly say that shall be much missed; she used to scare the children by talking to herself wherever she went and she was, of course, terribly dirty.”
“You say she sent for you. Why was that?”
“I thought it was because I’d helped her sometimes. Given her an old blanket and occasionally food. But it wasn’t just that. She had something to tell me.”
Julie seemed affected by more than the passing of Raggety May. It turned out that she had been proved wrong in one particular and did not like this.
“Raggety May was often seen about at night. This was one of the things that gave her a bad name among some people. In a rural district like this it was felt that everyone should be in bed and asleep by midnight and Raggety May was apt to wander down the lanes, heavens knows why. And among other places she would pass the cottage where Jessie and Desmond lived.”
“I was wrong about one thing, Carolus. You remember I told you that when I went to the cottage on the day after Desmond and Jessie were seen for the last time at the Rudyard Arms I was certain that she was not there?”
“You said that. But you added that you thought if she were there she was dead.”
“Did I? Then I was more right that I knew. She was there, and she was dead.”
“This is what you have learned from Raggety May?”
“Yes. The old creature sent for me because she had something on her mind, I suppose. She couldn’t speak for a long time, then she managed to mutter ‘Your sister’ and I guessed what was coming. ‘They murdered her at the cottage,’ she crooked. I asked who they were. She said there were two men. ‘I saw them carrying her out in the night, all covered up. She was dead, you could tell by the way they carried her and dropped her in a car. Then they drove away.’
“Raggety May began to look rather wild and I was afraid I’d hear nothing more from her. ‘Who were they?’ I asked again. She didn’t speak for a long time but I persisted. ‘Who were the two men carrying her out?’ She seemed to make an effort to concentrate. ‘One was the fat man,’ she said at last. I suppose she meant George Garrison.”
“Probably,” he agreed. “But wouldn’t she have known him?”
“Oh yes. She hated George. He had turned her out of his farmyard.”
“That doesn’t say much for the value of her testimony, does it? If she hated him she may have invented the story.”
“I don’t think so. ‘Truth sits upon the lips of dying men.’ If you’d seen the poor old woman, knowing she was about to die, I think you’d have believed her too. I will tell you what I think. I think Flitcher bribed or blackmailed George to help dispose of Jessie’s body and murdered him five years later when George seemed about to give him away.”
“That sounds very plausible,” said Carolus. “But like everything else in this case it has no real evidence to support it—yet. Couldn’t you get anything more from Raggety May?”
“I am afraid not. I tried hard enough, asking her to the other man was, but she was already half a coma and that was all I heard.”
“Would she have known Desmond Flitcher by sight?”
“Not necessarily. They had not been at the cottage long and it was usually from the wives that she begged. She knew Jessie, though, and me and Marie. Her sight was clear enough, although she had those red-rimmed rheumy eyes that many old mumpers have. But it was presumably dark when she watched. ‘In the night,’ she said, so she may not have recognized more than George who was so fat she couldn’t have missed him.”
“You don’t think she told the story to anyone else?”
“No. I am pretty sure she didn’t, or she would not have made a point of telling me. Most people on their deathbeds think only of themselves.”
“Do they? Yes, I suppose so. Perhaps she felt she had nothing to look forward to.”
“Oh, you’re a Catholic,” said Julie briskly. “Anyhow, that’s the story. Will it be any use to you?”
“Yes,” said Carolus inscrutably. “Most valuable.”
“Are you getting any nearer to a solution of the whole thing?”
“I simply don’t know. I may be. I hope so. It has made things so difficult between Marie and me. I’d love to clear it up and finish with it.”
“Marie’s coming back tomorrow. I had a wire from her last night. Sent off from Charing Cross.”
“Good,” said Carolus. “How about a glass of Madeira?”
“How clever of you! Madeira at eleven o’clock. Our grandparents used to do that sort of thing. What a civilized life you lead!”
“My housekeeper doesn’t think so. Do you, Mrs. Stick?” he added as the little woman appeared with a tray.
“It’s all according, sir,” she replied. “There’s some who’d say it isn’t hardly civilized to go poking about where there’s been a murder. Tastes differ.”
“Even now,” said Carolus to Julie, too absorbed in his thoughts to be mindful of the presence of Mrs. Stick, “even with the evidence of Raggety May we don’t know much more about the disposal of the body. It was ‘dropped’—that was the word—in . . . why, what’s the matter, Mrs. Stick?”
“You know very well what’s the matter, sir, and I’m sure Mrs. Nantwich would excuse me if I say it makes me upset to listen to you!” She went out closing the door very carefully lest she should be thought to bang it.
“Yes,” Carolus continued unperturbed. “It was ‘dropped’ in the car. And then what?”
“I don’t know,” said Julie. “I hate to think of that part of it. Like Mrs. Stick, I get upset.”
“Has it ever occurred to anyone to think of the lake?”
“Oh, I expect so. The lake seems very much a part of our life here.”
“Did Desmond and Jessie have a boat?”
“Yes. A little sailing dinghy with an outboard motor, which had belonged to all three of us girls. They were often on the lake. ”
“Swimming, too, perhaps?”
“Often. They both swam well, Desmond particularly. He swam across the lake from side to side three times in a morning which was quite an achievement. Jessie could only manage it once. It’s nearly two miles across. Even that seemed impressive to Marie and me. I couldn’t swim very much and Marie not at all.”
“I sometimes find it very hard to get the picture of these two people. Swimming and yachting together. Enjoying themselves. Indulging in public buffoonery.”
“That was Desmond.”
“It doesn’t add up to the likelihood of murder, though, does it? A sense of humour is not often part of the murderer’s make up.”
“You forget what Desmond’s past was. He had already killed a man.”
“I’m sorry to go back to the morbid past of those events. I’d much rather—as I’m sure you would—remember the two of them swimming together in the lake. But one has to think of uglier possibilities. And Raggety May’s story does remind us that there were other ways, besides burial under the roadway, to get rid of the body. How deep is the lake?”
“About ninety feet, I believe.”
“There are effective ways of weighting a body, you know, without risk of its ever rising to the surface or being washed ashore.”
“I know. It’s pretty grim for you. But I am afraid I want to go further, and ask you again about those bloodstains.”
“I only know what was in the papers,” said Julia hurriedly. “Jessie was in a rare blood group and the bloodstains corresponded to it.
“How rare? Could it have been anyone else’s in Millgrove?”
“I understand not. I gather this was considered at the time but the police were satisfied that it was Jessie’s blood which was spilt.”
“Yet the bloodstain was found on the morning after Desmond and Jessie was seen together for the last time at the Rudyard Arms. No blood stains were found at the cottage, I suppose?”
Julie looked startled.
“At the cottage? No. It was never suggested, anyway.”
“So that if Jessie was murdered near the road work, and if Raggety May’s story is true, your sister’s body was taken back to the cottage and kept there for two days until the ‘two men’ carried it out and dropped it in the back of the car?”
“It does sound improbable, doesn’t it? But I suppose that’s what must have happened.”
“And then disposed of it in some way about which we know nothing?”
“You’re coming back to the lake. I somehow don’t think that’s the solution. For one thing, someone would surely have seen them taking a boat out.”
“Would they? I suppose Raggety May gave no hint of the time at which she had seen all that?”
“No. She said it was at night, that’s all.”
“It would not have been unusual for her to be wondering about until the small hours of the morning?”
“Not at all. She was often seen, by early risers, still on the road.”
“Then why are you so sure,” said Carolus, filling Julie’s glass from a bottle of Sercial, “why are you so sure that the two men would have been observed? They might have had a boat at some other point on the lake.”
“Possible, I suppose.”
I know from Ben Tanner that George Garrison was out with his car late on the second night after the Flitchers left the Rudyard Arms. The night, presumably, on which Raggety May saw ‘the fat man’. But I don’t know what time it was.”
“You can scarcely expect to, can you? After all this was five years ago and anyhow Raggety May never knew the time—or even the day of the year.”
“But I would be glad of a pointer,” said Carolus.
“You are determined to think that poor Jessie’s body was dumped in the lake?”
“Not determined, Julie. I am still floundering, as I told you, though I am beginning to have a few ideas. Coming back to the main road theory . . .”
“And forgetting the lake?”
“For the moment. And in this connection, yes. Coming back to the main road, your old friend Raggety May’s story does dispose of one awkward problem.”
“I’m delighted to know it. I rather liked the old thing. What problem?”
“Just this. Why nothing was found when they broke the surface of the road. I saw a man called Morrow who worked on the construction, and he said nothing would have been found. But I take leave to differ from an expert and say that’s impossible. Jessie, according to his wife, was wearing a smart grey coat and skirt.”
“That’s right. She was. On that last evening.”
“And it doesn’t matter how many tons of concrete were dropped, the body of a fully-clothed woman would have left some traces, if the concrete was broken up, as apparently it was, with a major road-breaking operation.”
“Then how does Raggety May’s story tie up with that?”
“Simply because if a body was put where it would be covered by concrete on the following day, it would not have been found where are the police searched. They would have supposed it was buried at the time at which the bloodstains were made, that is on the night which the Flitcher’s left the Rudyard Arms for the last time. But if, Raggety May says, this was two nights later, the road would have progressed so many feet or yards since then.”
“Of course it would!”
“And nothing would have been found at the spot in which they broke the road.”
“Oh, very ingenious. In other words with a calendar . . .”
“And the construction engineer’s work diary, it would have been possible to find the exact spot.”
“You mean it would still be possible?”
“Something must remain. But I should need a lot more evidence than that to persuade anyone connected with the Law, the police, the press or Parliament to authorize the spending of several thousand pounds in finding out. Not to mention the closure of the road to traffic while they were doing it.”
“And in any case,” said Julie, “since they have never arrested Desmond, what would be the point? Proving that a murder has been committed and the body buried would not help much when they can’t find the man who did it.”
“No. But I haven’t finished with the case.”
“I wish you would, Carolus. Its beginning to make me feel as I did in the first few days after it happened. And you’ve seen the effect on Marie.”
“I can only press on regardless,” said Carolus smiling. “I’m going to Liverpool tomorrow to see that friend of Marie’s, Margot Denver. It’s a long shot, but there must be a solution somewhere, however confused it is.”
“Yes. There must be. But whether we’ll be glad to have discovered it or not I don’t know.”
“I think you will. Whatever it is. Doubt in things like this is the hardest to bear. Ah, here is Mr. Gorringer. Mrs. Nantwich, my former head master.
The two greeted one another, Mr. Gorringer with notable formality.
“Deene has most considerately confided in me the details of the investigation on which he is engaged,” said Mr. Gorringer. “From them, I recognize your name, Mrs. Nantwich.”
“Oh yes,” said Julie. “I was just saying I wish Carolus had not started on the case, though I encouraged him at the beginning.”
“It is not the first time, said Mr. Gorringer tactlessly, “that someone who had invited our good Deene to investigate has had cause to regret it. His tenacity is remarkable. But now let me say that I have this morning chanced on some evidence which may be of considerable use to you, Deene.”
“Really?” Carolus did not mean to sound incredulous, but that was certainly the effect.
“At a point on the far side of the lake to which I had come in the course of my most pleasurable ramble, I chanced on a fellow pedestrian, a clergyman as it happened, and as solitary travellers do, we fell into conversation.”
“Yes?” said Carolus, who appeared spellbound.
“He turned out to be a curate from the local parish church of St. Barnabas-on-the-Water, and therefore, I considered, a man whose evidence was likely to be trustworthy.
“He was steeped in local legendry and myth and told me of a number of events that had taken place in the vicinity.”
“Please be patient, Deene. One of these was so singular that it seemed relevant to your own equally insoluble problem. It appeared that a boating party put out on the lake at nightfall . . .”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, headmaster, but this happened in the last century.”
“I am perfectly aware that it happened in the last century. In 1889, to be precise. But is that any reason why someone who had heard the story might not attempt to repeat it in 1971?”
“Well, no,” admitted Carolus. “But no one, of whom we know, has attempted to repeat it, so where does that leave us?”
“Does it not suggest to your fertile mind something connected with the disposal of the body?”
Julie, who was evidently sorry for Mr. Gorringer, interrupted.
“You have just been saying that it might have been weighted and dropped in the lake, Carolus!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Nantwich. I am glad to know that I haven’t started a hare after all. The curate, Mr. Wilkes, was most convincing. None of the boating party was ever seen again and there was no sign of the boat which must have sunk without trace in ninety feet of water.”
“Nowadays we should use divers to examine it or even bring it to the surface, and a picturesque legend would have been lost.”
“I suppose so,” said Mr. Gorringer regretfully. “But even eighty years ago one would have supposed that the bodies would have been recovered. However, I sought to aid your present investigations, not to give you further cause for speculation.”
“Perhaps you have, headmaster,” said Carolus more kindly. “Have another glass of Madeira?”